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August 31, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 8


A crowd filled the Goddard Space Flight Center auditorium in late July to hear and share stories about the risks of organizational silence.

Paul Richards lay on his back on the ground, his parachute fluttering in the wind above him after a hard landing. He lifted his legs, expecting to see one swollen, sprained ankle. Instead, one leg pointed in one direction and the other leg pointed unnaturally in another — it was broken. Perhaps, thought Richards, he should have said something about the unsupportive shoes he was asked to change into before jumping out of the plane.

Richards, a former pilot and astronaut now working as the Spacecraft Observatory Manager on GOES-R, was one of several leaders to share stories about organizational silence at a Center-wide workshop led by Dr. Ed Rogers, Goddard’s Chief Knowledge Officer. In his opening remarks, Rogers talked about the importance of cultivating an environment in which people can speak up appropriately when they see a problem or don’t understand something. He drew a distinction between “speaking up” to raise concerns internally and “speaking out,” or going public about a problem, noting that the purpose of the event was to focus on improving internal communication.

Bryan O’Connor, NASA’s Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer, recalled his days as an astronaut early in the Shuttle program, in which he sat in meetings and listened to seasoned engineers talk past one another. The Challenger accident, which took place two missions after his first Shuttle flight, served as a rude awakening. “I am never going to let myself sit through another meeting and let two people talk past each other,” he concluded. “I don’t have the right to be silent when I know something is wrong,” he said.

The people who worked on Challenger were really smart people, working under enormous pressure, said John Mather, Nobel Laureate and Senior Project Scientist on the James Webb Telescope. “Who’s to say we aren’t like those people?” he asked. Mather spoke of his experiences on the development of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), where he would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that no one was checking his work. “If no one is checking your work, you’re in trouble,” he said.

“Every one of us has some things that we know and a lot of things that we don’t know,” said Mike Ryschkewitsch, NASA Chief Engineer. Ryschkewitsch and Mather both worked on COBE’s Far Infrared Absolute Spectrometer (FIRAS), the instrument that produced the data that enabled Mather’s prizewinning research on cosmic background radiation. Ryschkewitsch recalled assembling a team on a Saturday to work on the FIRAS as COBE’s launch was nearing. During the process, an engineer asked Ryschkewitsch about a bolt that appeared to be loose. Ryschkewitsch, somewhat distracted, had “heard and not heard” the question at the same time, and the engineer never repeated his concern. Fortunately, they had another opportunity to catch the mistake. “I learned that status doesn’t make you immune to mistakes,” Ryschkewitsch said. “Even after you’ve checked all the boxes, are you sure you’re done? Have you polled everyone?”

“The check list will not save you,” said Jay Pittman, Chief of the Range and Mission Management Office at Wallops Flight Facility. “Organizational silence is not just a problem of organizations. It’s a people thing,” he said, noting the need to be able to “hear through the silence.” The only defense against a deafening silence, he continued, is the solar wind approach: constantly applied gentle pressure to encourage people to speak up.

Article by HS

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